Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
This doesn’t look good.
As a strike deadline creeped up to the 24-hour mark, The WestJet Group, in the early hours of Thursday morning (May 18), began taking down its network in anticipation of work stoppage that will see more than 1,800 pilots at WestJet and Swoop walk off the job as of 5 a.m. EST on Friday (May 19).
In an update issued shortly after 2 a.m. EST., the Calgary-based airline said the flight cancellations will prevent its aircraft from being abandoned in remote locations and minimalize the potential for crew and guests to be stranded if a strike occurs.
The disruption come as the WestJet Group, which has been in round-the-clock negotiations with the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) since Monday (May 15) when a strike notice was issued, remains in a stalemate with the union regarding what it says are “unreasonable wage expectations.”
READ MORE: Is WestJet providing refunds? Q&A posted as pilot strike, lockout looms
Pilots representing both WestJet and discount carrier Swoop voted in favour of a strike mandate in April.
The group is seeking better job protections, benefits and wages that they say will bring them in line with their U.S. counterparts.
But WestJet says if it accepted the ALPA’s request for U.S.-like wages, it would “permanently damage” the financial viability of the company’s future.
READ MORE: WestJet & Swoop pilots could strike Friday. Now what?
"We are extremely disheartened to find ourselves in a place where we have to activate our contingency plan and subsequent takedown of our network as a result of the strike notice served by ALPA and their inability to accept a reasonable offer. We deeply regret the disruption this will have on the travel plans of our guests and the communities and businesses that rely on our critical air service," stated Alexis von Hoensbroech, CEO of the WestJet Group.
"We remain at a critical impasse with the union and have been left with no choice but to begin taking the painful steps of preparing for the reality of a work stoppage."
Given that a tentative agreement has not yet been reached, the WestJet Group is parking the majority of its 737 and 787 fleet, in a “measured, phased and safe approach.”
WestJet Encore, WestJet Link as well as limited 737 flights will continue to operate during this time, the airline says.
"We remain at the bargaining table, unequivocally committed to achieving a deal as soon as possible, but are equally ready to weather labour action for as long as it takes to arrive at a reasonable outcome," said von Hoensbroech. "Any guest impact is too high of a cost in the wake of these negotiations and we sincerely apologize that valued guests were caught in the middle of an avoidable conflict."
WestJet, yesterday, posted a Q&A to help answer any questions its customers may have.
In addition to the union’s strike notice, WestJet has announced its own lockout notice, noting a planned work stoppage for Friday (May 19).
The labour action comes just as the busy Victoria Day long weekend kicks in.
WestJet has almost a third of Canada's domestic market, and according to Cirium data, the airline has 540 flights scheduled for Friday and 457 for Saturday.
Earlier this week, Flair Airlines announced that it has added extra flights between Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton to help travellers who are impacted by the WestJet strike.
The low-cost carrier, in fact, is acting a little cheeky about the increased frequency, posting a message to its homepage that reads: “Don’t strike out your long weekend.”
A "massive" gap
Earlier this week, comments from WestJet’s CEO suggested that the talks weren’t making progress as he noted a “massive” gap between the airline's offer to the pilots and the union's counter-proposal.
The comments were made just as mainstream media outlets obtained a memo to pilots that revealed WestJet’s (now expired) wage offer, which would have raised pilot salaries to “around” $300,000 for a narrowbody aircraft captain and $350,000 for a widebody aircraft captain, before overtime and other stipends.
In the memo, John Aaron, WestJet’s vice-president of flight operations, reportedly said those wages would have made narrowbody captains and first officers (which are most of WestJet’s pilots) the highest-paid in Canada.
But Tim Perry, ALPA’s national president, later told Global News that the figures do not represent what all WestJet pilots would earn, saying there’s “a wide range” of both pilot salaries and what the airline was offering.
“We have members that are first officers and captains of all levels of seniority that fly all different types of airplanes,” he said. “And (the memo) certainly doesn’t paint the picture of all the members that we are trying to represent here.”
The ALPA has previously said that flight crews are working at a “steep discount” compared to U.S. airlines, and are paid 45 per cent of the North American average.
The union has also underlined the 34 per cent pay hike over four years secured in March by Delta Air Lines pilots as a precedent they want WestJet to match.
Canada and the U.S. are very different aviation markets, with different exchange rates. With this in mind, von Hoensbroech said it would be difficult for WestJet to close that pay gap, which he said has existed for “decades.”
“If you want to close a gap that’s times two, then you can imagine how big the jump may be that will take them to where they would like to get,” the CEO said. “And that, in this environment where we are, is not a reasonable expectation.”
Meanwhile, at least one pilot union in the U.S. is cheering on their plane-operating colleagues at WestJet.
"Stand strong, @WestJetALPA. As they gear up to strike for fair pay, job security & flexible schedules, 16,000 @United Pilots stand with them. Our strength lies in unity. Check your jumpseaters & let's ensure no pilot is left behind," tweeted the union that represents some 15,000 pilots at United Airlines.
Appearing on Citytv's Breakfast Television Tuesday morning (May 16), Capt. Bernard Lewall, chair of the WestJet ALPA Master Executive Council (MEC), clarified that pilots aren’t expecting the pay gap, in relation to U.S. levels, to close completely.
“We expect it to be narrowed and we don’t expect it to keep widening,” he said. “With [WestJet’s] latest offer, that gap is still widening.”
The captain says WestJet pilots, as a result, are leaving the company at a high rate.
READ MORE: As pilot strike looms, WestJet aims to “set the record straight”
“We’ve lost 260 over last year to other airlines, both in Canada and the U.S.,” he said, noting that 39 per cent of WestJet pilots will look elsewhere if a “good contract” isn’t secured.
WestJet, last week, attempted to “set the record straight” by saying that its mainline pilots are among the best paid in Canada and wages shouldn’t be compared to U.S. levels.
The airline also maintains that pilot resignations are not as bad as the ALPA says they are.
Last week, the pilots staged an informational picket at airports in Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto to raise awareness of their demands.
Minister Alghabra speaks
Yesterday, Transport Minister Omar Alghabra urged the two sides to reach a solution, noting Labour Minister Seamus O’Regan and a mediator — Peter Simpson, who oversees the federal mediation service — are on the ground.
“I do not want to put my finger on the scale,” Minister Alghabra told journalists in Ottawa, as reported by the Canadian Press. “Ultimately the biggest obligation is to make sure that they deliver the service that they sold to customers.”
WestJet and Swoop customers, who are likely now scrambling to make alternative arrangements, are advised to check the status of their flight prior to leaving for the airport.
They’re also being directed to WestJet’s Guest Updates page or Swoop’s information hub for more information regarding flight status, travel changes and more.
Under Canada’s Air Passenger Protection Regulations (APPR), airlines that cannot operate a scheduled flight must offer to rebook impacted passengers on a flight with another airline within 48 hours of the original departure time.
After that point, passengers are entitled to a refund but may also accept a voucher with the airline if one is offered.
The Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA) has posted information for WestJet customers here.
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